Stiff, projecting oral structure of birds and turtles (both of which lack teeth) and certain other animals (e.g., cephalopods and some insects, fishes, and mammals). The term bill is preferred for the beak of a bird, which is composed of upper and lower jaws covered by a horny sheath of skin, with the nostrils on top, usually at the base. The shapes and sizes of bills are adapted for obtaining food, preening, building nests, and other functions; they range from the long, slim bills of nectar-sipping hummingbirds to the sturdy, curved, nut-cracking bills of parrots.
Learn more about beak with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The beak, bill or rostrum is an external anatomical structure of birds which, in addition to eating, is used for grooming, manipulating objects, killing prey, probing for food, courtship and feeding their young. The term also refers to a similar mouthpart in some cephalopods, cetaceans, pufferfishes, turtles, Anuran tadpoles and sirens.
The beak has two holes called nares (nostrils) which connect to the hollow inner beak and thence to the respiratory system. The nares are usually located directly above the beak. In some birds, they are located in a fleshy, often waxy structure at the base of the beak called the cere (from Latin cera). Hawks, parrots, doves, skuas and budgerigars are among the birds that have ceres. Budgerigars are dimorphic in that the males' ceres turn bright blue upon maturity, while the females' ceres turn tan. The female budgies' ceres also appear wrinkled, to a greater extent during periods of fertility. Immature budgies have pale pinkish ceres which are smooth and shiny.
On some birds, the tip of the beak is hard, dead tissue used for heavy-duty tasks such as cracking nuts or killing prey. On other birds, such as ducks, the tip of the bill is sensitive and contains nerves, for locating things by touch. The beak is worn down by use, so it grows continuously throughout the bird's life.
Unlike jaws with teeth, beaks are not used for chewing. Birds swallow their food whole, which is broken up in the gizzard.
In the mallard, and perhaps in other ducks, there is no cere, and the nostrils are in the hard part of the beak, as a soft cere would be liable to injury when the duck dredges for food among submerged debris and stones.
During courtship, mated pairs of a variety of bird species touch and clasp each other's bills. This is called billing, and appears to strengthen the pair bond (Terres, 1980). Gannets raise their bills high and repeatedly clatter them (pictured); the male puffin nibbles at the female's beak; the male waxwing puts his bill in the female's mouth; and ravens hold each other's beaks in a prolonged "kiss".